For farmers Weekly May 2014
The subject of ‘conflict of interest’ has arisen in our local community. If you’ve never heard the expression before I’m happy for you. It’s a contentious subject at the best of times but once you add wind turbines into the mix as well then it really gets everyone going.
And that’s a problem. Managing conflicts of interest is preventing a balanced view of wind farming from emerging.
Farmers often become involved with local organisations like community councils because it’s vital that the views of outlying areas are represented in any community.
However, the whole process becomes unstuck when land based issues comes before community councils and it’s conflict of interest that puts the spanner in the works.
The perfect storm was created here in our community when a developer applied for planning consent to build a windfarm on land that is owned by two landowners in our valley. Our local community council was consulted as a statutory consultee - yours truly is the chairman.
In these situations it’s up to the individual councillor to decide if he/she has a connection with the proposal that would prejudice their discussion or their decision on whether to support or oppose the development.
The objective test for such a conflict of interest is whether a member of the public, with the knowledge of the relevant facts, would reasonably regard the interest as so significant that it is likely to prejudice the councillor’s discussion or any decision that they make.
Right away there is a problem because the local councillor has to make their own mind up as to what a reasonable member of the public is going to think. I’m not sure if it’s King Solomon or Mystic Meg that you need to consult with on that point.
To further complicate things just over half of the members of our particular community council are tenants of one of the landowners that stands to benefit from the development. Remember prejudice can work in two directions. The councillor could curry favour with his/her landlord and support the proposal or conversely there is an opportunity to grind an old unforgotten axe and oppose it.
Perhaps mercifully, I got knocked out of the process on a glaringly obvious conflict of interest. My sister, who is also on our community council, stands to benefit directly from the development. She is the tenant of one of the farms where some of the turbines are proposed to be built. Therefore, she removed herself from all discussions about the wind farm as she clearly has a conflict of interest.
I then had to decide if my family connection would prejudice the way I approached the discussions regarding the plans. And, as there is no doubt that I do love my sister dearly, I also withdrew from discussions.
To cut a long story short, the remaining councillors decided to oppose the development.
Any reasonable member of the public on hearing that our community council has objected to the plans will naturally assume that the majority of people who live in our community oppose the wind farm. However, what that same reasonable member of the public will not be aware of is that due their conflict of interest, a sizable portion of our community was unable to be represented at all in the discussion or the decision.
The guidance on conflicts of interest needs to be tightened up. There needs to be a distinction between direct (as in the case of my sister) and the indirect conflict of interest that I had. The same set of circumstances in another area with a different brother and a different sister might have produced a completely different result. That can’t be good.